- Electric trucks are well suited for port operations.
- Getting them into the hands of thousands of independent truckers is going to be tough.
- The solution of the Port of Long Beach? Charge companies like Amazon, Walmart, and Target.
- This article is part of the “Making Net Zero Possible” series, which uncovers forward-thinking solutions that can make a net zero future a reality.
Ground zero for converting the millions of big diesel rigs on American roads to electric is not the highways; these are the ports.
Local truck runs that haul containers out of the port and into a nearby yard or warehouse, called drayage in the industry, dramatically reduce air quality in port communities across the United States — not to mention their contribution to global temperature rise.
But the structure of the industry and its resistance to changing the way it operated had made improving the process seemingly impossible. Kenneth Adler, a senior research fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund, stopped working on the issue eight years ago — mostly out of frustration. Then electric trucks started to get real.
Walmart, Target, Amazon and others have set goals to achieve net zero emissions within decades, but they don’t fully control their supply chains, especially the vehicles that carry their goods. This is where electric trucks come in. Highways will eventually have to change, too, but for those eager to begin the zero-emissions shift in trucking, ports are the place to start, experts say.
“Given these major retailers’ net greenhouse gas emissions targets, that light bulb just went out and I thought, ‘This is where these trucks are going to end up,'” said Adler at Insider.
Why Ports Are Perfect for Electric Trucks—Almost
Ports are an ideal place to employ electric trucks on a large scale, as the job of a port trucker matches the capabilities and limitations of an electric truck. Drayage drivers often return to port several times a day and, unlike long-haul truckers who criss-cross the country’s highways, travel a few hundred miles or less within a relatively small radius. This means that the central charging infrastructure could keep them charged for those short trips.
The problem? The ports do not own any trucks. They can install charging infrastructure, work with the local network and designate a space to charge trucks. But they rely on a cacophonous ecosystem made up mostly of small trucking companies and even independent drivers.
“The majority are owner operated. How could they afford to buy a $450,000 truck?” Mario Cordero, executive director of California’s Port of Long Beach, said.
The Port of Long Beach has committed to converting to all-electric trucks by 2035; Cordero believes he will achieve that goal sooner than expected, he said.
The port began electrifying in 2005 and announced in September the upcoming installation of 60 electric drayage truck fast chargers by the end of the year. But the road was long with many potholes.
What Works in Long Beach
Retailers and port stakeholders may agree now, but the push to reduce emissions 17 years ago came not from them, but from Long Beach residents.
“None of this would have happened, without community advocacy,” Cordero told Insider.
A supportive regulatory environment in California also helped. But even with a sweeping plan to reduce emissions in port operations, Cordero’s team still had to find a way to make electric trucks a realistic option when it’s time for drayage truckers to trade. Availability is always an issue, but cost is an even bigger hurdle.
The fix in Long Beach, according to Cordero, is the Clean Truck Fee. The nation’s largest port complex charges around $10 for every truck that enters the sprawling facility, and the funds go into a pot to fund the purchase of zero-emission trucks.
Most trucking companies pass this on to their customers, which means it’s the freight owners – retailers and manufacturers – who are funding the transition. These same retailers and manufacturers will eventually benefit when they can report that their supply chain emissions are reduced over time.
Cordero said the Port of Long Beach, combined with the nearby Port of Los Angeles, would raise $90 million a year in fees. The conversion will also need to be at least partly funded by the government, Cordero said. How the fund will be allocated or released has not yet been explained.
The Port of Houston, with which Adler works directly, and many other ports in the United States are in the early stages of the long journey to zero emissions. Funding to make zero-emission vehicle purchases more feasible for owner-operators is a difficult problem to solve, he said.
But even with many unanswered questions, now is the perfect time to make a serious truck change, Cordero said.
“The technology is there, so any other port that wants to encourage the industry to have zero-emission trucks – they can start today,” he said.
According to Adler, the time to invest in zero-emission conversions is coming. With renewed energy, he plans to move the Houston-developing playbook to other ports like New York, Baltimore, and Norfolk, Virginia.
“If the cost of these trucks continues to come down as expected, there’s going to be this transformation in drayage operations. It’s going to be absolutely crazy,” Adler said.